At the center of Ashgabat’s over-the-top Monument to Independence is the statue of the dictator who built it—even though he’d have preferred the USSR stayed intact.
Question: Where in the world do 27 gold-crusted action figures guard a massive hat built to celebrate the independence of a nation whose “liberator” didn't want it to be free?
Answer: The singular city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
The phrase “like nowhere else on earth!” gets overused to hype exotic travel destinations, but if ever a city could lay claim to that distinction, it’s Ashgabat. The Turkmenistan capital houses a jaw-dropping collection of buildings and monuments that defy expectation, especially when found sandwiched in the remote region between the Karakum desert and rugged Kopet Dag mountains. And in a city chockablock with visual wonders, the mother of them all is the Monument to Independence.
Turkmenistan was one of the last states loyal to the USSR before its collapse. Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov was an egomaniac of the highest order; he filled the capital city with statues of himself (including one that rotated to face the rising sun every day) and made all the citizens memorize a book he’d written. (For good measure, he built a statue of that, too.) He liked having the support of an authoritarian regime backing him up, so he actually opposed independence from the USSR. But as more and more of the other Soviet states broke away, it became clear to him that he could face a revolution at home if he did not follow suit. On October 27, 1991 he announced independence, just under the wire: the USSR broke up a few months later.
Niyazov didn’t just change his tune; he rewrote history to make himself the champion of independence, erecting the monumental complex where his statue is at the center of 27 others, all of them former Turkmen leaders rendered in a dramatic style invoking legends and superheroes. Some are shown with swords drawn, some with cobras in their pockets, and all are crusted with gold. Niyazov made sure that his own statue was both realistically modern in appearance and still touched with a flair for the heroic: a billowing cape flows from his business suit.
The actual monument behind all the statues is shaped liked a traditional Turkmen woman’s hat, with a rounded base and an ornamental decoration poking up from the top (in this case, a minaret). The height of the minaret is meant to quietly honor the date of independence: 27 (the day of the month) plus 91 (the year) equal 118, so the tower is 118 meters high. That this tribute is hidden within the architecture may be the only subtle element in the entire 900,000-square-foot complex.
9 Ashgabat Eyepoppers
- The 2.3 billion-dollar airport is shaped liked a falcon. With a 1,000 foot “wingspan” encompassing the terminal, and “tailfeathers” nearly twice as long, it is the largest bird-shaped building in the world. (Yes, there are others, from Iran to France.)
- The Health Ministry, with blue glass and white marble, is supposed to resemble a syringe (complete with a barrel and plunger, and the doorway as tip) but with its flaring sides, it looks like a hooded snake about to strike, and has been nicknamed the Cobra Building by locals.
- The Ministry of Education is an open book—literally. The skyscraper is shaped like a massive book opened at the middle, with alternating darker and lighter windows to yield “text.”
- The Happiness Palace (Bagt Kosgi) is a wedding venue in which white marble steps lead up to an enormous glass globe trapped inside Turkmen stars. (No comment on the symbolism there.) At night, there’s a Vegas touch as the stars change colors from blue to red to purple to green.
- The Central Bank building has no problem announcing its contents: the exterior is adorned with a five-story gold bar composed of 55 gleaming cubes, each a yard thick.
- The 24-story Yyldyz Hotel, a 5-star luxury lodging, is meant to resemble a teardrop, which its all-glass main section does especially well by day, when its surface gleams. But at night, when the framework is lit so that it becomes more prominent, the glass center seems to recede, and the structure ends up looking like a pitted avocado.
- The world’s biggest indoor Ferris wheel anchors the Alem Cultural and Entertainment center. Rising 150 feet, the Ferris wheel seats 144 passengers at once and is wrapped in a steel-and-marble structure, yielding the impression as the wheel turns that one is peering inside clockworks.
- The 30-story TV Tower, viewable from all of Ashgabat, is bisected by the World’s Biggest Architectural Star, a decorative "Star of Oguzkhan" occupying eight stories and 35,000 square feet.
- Not to be outdone by his predecessor, current Turkman ruler Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has immortalized his own glory in a 24-carat-gold gilded statue of himself as “The People’s Horse Breeder.” In this sculpture, he sits astride an Akhal-Teke stallion, the national horse, which rears up at the lip of 60-foot marble cliff straight out of the opening sequence of The Lion King.
Soak up the surreal grandeur of Ashgabat when you discover The Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan with O.A.T.